Tue, Aug 31, 2004 - Page 16 News List

Macau outstrips The Strip

Since Macau became part of China, gambling in the former Portuguses enclave has taken off in a big way, outdoing even Las Vegas

AFP , MACAU

Even Galaxy, the Hong Kong-owned company that entered the market at the same time, raked in more, with far fewer tables.

It has led some to doubt the American model in Macau.

"The Chinese operators understand the local market better because they have been here longer," said Martins.

"The Americans say they will bring in the holiday gamblers but the Chinese casinos are making money from VIP tables, which Sands so far doesn't have."

The high rollers of the VIP rooms provided an estimated 80 percent of the US$373 million taken in June by the largest and oldest casino operator: Stanley Ho's SJM.

Ho held the monopoly on gambling here for four decades until this year when the government of Beijing-backed chief executive Edmund Ho (no relation) introduced new legislation allowing foreign competition.

Through his huge conglomerate STDM, Stanley Ho controls much of the economic activity of Macau. Apart from his 12 casinos he owns the ferry company and port, he has a large share in the airport and he controls some of the most prestigious hotels and tourist attractions.

Viewed here as a benevolent uncle, few know why the government decided to break Ho's grip on the city.

"Stanley controls so many rugs he could easily have pulled from under the economy, I think the government wanted to spread the risk," suggests Nadkarni.

Huge Ho

"I think Stanley was seen as too powerful," says local legislator Antonio Ng Kuok Cheong, who opposes the casino expansion plans.

"But I think it also made sense because there was a genuine desire to inject new life into the local market."

Sands Macau is just a taste of things to come. On a 100,000m2 reclamation between two islands called the Cotai strip, it is leading a development that will by 2009 house at least 25 American-style resorts and casinos, including the US$1 billion Venetian Macau.

As well, Ho plans two theme parks and the 40-story Grand Lisboa casino hotel.

Nearby, Galaxy has begun building what will be a 13-story gambling haven; across the road Las Vegas tycoon Steve Wynn will open a 600-room, 200-table complex; and there has even been talk of MGM, which pioneered the family casinos in Vegas, opening a property with Ho's daughter Pansy.

When it is complete by 2009, the Cotai strip will provide some 30,000 hotel rooms -- 4,500 at the Venetian alone -- about 1,000 gaming tables and at least 30,480m2 of convention space.

The strip is expected employ some 150,000 staff.

Many distrust relying on one industry but with no nearby competition and China -- though morally and politically opposed to gambling -- committed to maintaining Macau as the nation's only casino haven, problems, for now, look far away.

"No one can see an end to the gambling jackpot," says Martins.

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